A Peter Gelb Misstep
To further postpone my long-promised, hotly awaited modern-dance entry, I offer some pontifications on the Metropolitan Opera's new production of what it bills as "John Adams's 'Doctor Atomic.'" That formulation omits Peter Sellars as co-conceiver of the opera and assembler of its collage libretto, though Sellars is credited on the first page of the program.
Peter Gelb decided to jettison Sellars's original staging, first seen in San Francisco three years ago and since, I believe, in two other cities, and to replace it with a new one by Penny Woolcock. Ms. Woolcock, a documentary television filmmaker in England, is making a career of reworking Adams operas sans Sellars. Her film of "The Death of Klinghoffer" was a big success; her production of "Doctor Atomic," her first-ever opera staging, is a big failure.
The reasons are simple, and speak to either Gelb's misjudgment or hubris. Maybe he dislikes Sellars's work; maybe he dislikes Sellars. Maybe he didn't want a production by someone closely identified with Gerard Mortier and the new New York City Opera. Maybe he just wanted (at considerble expense, though the production looks cheap) to do something different. What he got was sharply inferior to the Sellars original.
Ms. Woolcock's "Klinghoffer" was successful because she transformed it from a static meditation to a hard-hitting, realistic film, full of intense acting seen in telling closeups. "Doctor Atomic" is also static, especially in the second act, which begs to be cut (apparently Ms. Woolcock wanted cuts, which Adams successfully resisted). Those interminable scenes with Kitty Oppenheimer and her Indian maid Pasqualita drag on and on; maybe they would have worked with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, originally intended as Kitty.
On the big stage at the Met, Ms. Woolcock looked lost. People stood around (or were caged in tiered boxes on movable walls, shades of Mark Morris's "Orfeo ed Euridice"; maybe they were the same rig). Or they ran about frenetically, distractingly and to no obvious purpose. Whatever skills she has in closeups were vitiated by the vast scale.
The lack of tension -- exacerbated by the earnest ponderousness of some of the music, at least as heard in Alan Gilbert's lush but slack conducting -- seeped away. Sellars and Adams deliberately chose not to end with a literal bang (the program insert warning that the production would contain "loud noise" was pretty funny given that this was supposed to be the ATOM BOMB) but with a recorded scream and an eerie silence, followed by a female Japanese voice begging for water, a sign of radiation poisoning. At the Met all that was undercut by a lack of clarity as to what was happening when. Sellars's staging of this scene, critcized by some, was far superior, with everyone in sun glasses lying down, filling the stage and facing the audience, and then bathed in sickly green light.
The Met's set, hemmed in by those walls, looked cramped and unatmospheric. The design was by Julian Crouch, who did the recent Met "Satyagraha," and featured a similar spherical "gadget," based on the original, that was seen in San Francisco. But the rear was dominated by an awkward assemblage of fabric draped over some sort of support structure. Maybe this all was supposed to evoke the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; in the end the fabric struggled upwards to dimly suggest the explosion.
Adrianne Lobel's San Francisco set was far more evocative. The rear of the stage was open, with a low horizon of mountains; one always felt the vastness of the New Mexico sky. The bomb hung ominously. Lucinda Childs's fussy dances intruded (here the Met's choreography, by Andrew Dawson, and the sternly static American Indians in full costume were better). But Sellars's direction of the principals was generally more pointed, especially the remarkable bodily contortions of Gerald Finley as Robert Oppenheimer, the titular doctor, in the incontestably greatest scene in the opera, a setting of John Donne's sonnet "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," which closes the first act.
Otherwise, the Met cast equalled San Francisco's, with Finley again singing beautifully and Eric Owens as the blustering General Groves returning from 2005, and telling contributions from Sasha Cooke, Richard Paul Fink and the rest.
That said, what was saddest about this disappointing evening was how it masked the true beauties of the Adams score. "Doctor Atomic" has its flaws, but it is a great opera, and Gelb, Woolcock and the Met don't let us realize that.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.
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